Dutch Narrative Painting

There is something about the particular dedication to one’s craft, that willingness to have such certainty in the perfection of each brush stroke that is endearing. Johannes Vermeer’s attention not only to the visual but also the narrative element of art is what draws in his audience. Supposedly we only spend about 15 seconds in front of a work of art before we move on. So, in order to capture an audience you have to employ only one in a series of devises: boldness, originality, horror, or sublime beauty.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher- Vermeer c. 1665


But the artists who work to create a narrative have to work much harder. Too much work and the modern audience has no need for a painting (it will never stand up to television); too little and the story is too weak to appeal. What displays the genius of Vermeer is how he addresses the perfect balance of narrative. He draws you in and leaves just enough clues to allow you to weave a story. He completed 34 works, a slim offering in light of the prolific body of work most professional artists product.

He is the most recognised artist of the Dutch golden age,which roughly spanned across the 17th century, and perhaps the best example of the art produced during that period. Like so many of his kind, it can be assumed that Vermeer finally succumbed to the cliché death of the “starving artist”— which is rarely death by starvation and more commonly death by stress.

The Geographer- Vermeer c.1669

The impressiveness of light play in his works is so realistic that one is momentarily transported into the story world the artist has created. He has, in every painting attributed to him, successfully created a “mirror world.” In this space, what is and what could be can successfully coexist in harmony of morality or immorality, and so we have a narrative.

It is a trait among Dutch artists that endears them to me: their pursuit of narrative appeal. The Dutch artists were the first modern artists to capture riotous debauchery in an authentic way, without chastising or embellishing. This is clearly why the Dutch entered a golden age: Honestly and liberal thinking to develop society and also have a laugh at its expense. They developed business, science and therefore luxury— for where there is health and a strong economy there is artistic and social development as well.

Gambler’s Quarrel -Havicksz c.1665

In the artistic hierarchy there is still life, landscape, genre, portrait and history or allegory paintings. The Dutch golden age features all of these, but what is especially valuable is the genre which yields narratives. Genre paintings feature scenes of everyday life, and they speak to us stories or snapshots of what a culture is.

prayer before the meal Jan Havicksz
Prayer before the Meal – Steen c. 1660

Dutch art was largely dynastic, with artists apprentice marrying the daughters of artist and this again is telling of how natural art was considered as a trade. While a luxury item, a painting was given a natural trade goods position— it existed and it was not questioned. These genre paintings were often moralistic, demonstrating the growing protestant population’s obsession with the value of traditional family life, but often demonstrated sexuality openly as well. If there are moral messages encrypted into some of these paintings, then it is as likely that there are immoral messages as well— a vast number of paintings set in taverns and brothels “alludes” to that fact.

the painter and his model arnold houbraken
The Painter and his Model- Verkolje c.1690


Of course, while narrative art has historical value it cannot simply be understood as fact. These paintings are, as suggested, a “mirror world”; perhaps with elements of reality to accompany a realistic style, but nonetheless fictional. As is so often the case in societies with limited literacy, art is the best way to share a narrative, moralistic or otherwise.

gerrit can honthorst
The Matchmaker- Van Honthorst c.1624

As modern audiences enjoy the craftsmanship of these works, we can enjoy the story as well. These narratives have inspired writers, such as Tracy Chevalier of Girl with a Pearl Earring fame. The modern viewer, while drawn in by the color and perfectionism of Dutch paintings, lingers over the woven story, the history of the maid cleaning the windows or the bridal couple staring blankly out to its audience.

girl with a pearl earring
Girl with a Pearl Earring- Vermeer c.1665

It is interesting that we hold musical narrative dear and ignore studio art narrative. Realistic representations have lost appeal because, conceivably, we have to allow ourselves to be taken into the story, it does not come to us. There is a laziness about art viewing which cannot grasp the depth of Dutch narratives. There does exist a mirror world, full of perfect design and light, waiting to be entered, like Alice venturing into the looking glass, should a viewer choose to linger long enough to be cocooned in the tale.


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